Which team was supposed to be fatigued?
Of course, the New York Rangers should’ve been tired after playing back-to-back games Tuesday and Wednesday to close out their seven-game win over Philadelphia.
However, the Rangers played anything but heavy-legged for the majority of their second-round opener against the relatively fresh Pittsburgh Penguins, scoring twice in the first period and getting the deciding goal from Derick Brassard 3:06 into overtime to grab the early series lead.
The Penguins put together a dominant second period at Consol Energy Center, during which Lee Stempniak and James Neal scored to equalize. But Pittsburgh couldn’t poke a third puck behind New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist during a back-and-forth third, then an egregious turnover handed the game to the visitors.
Veteran Pens defenseman Rob Scuderi handed the puck directly to Benoit Pouliot behind the Pittsburgh net. Pouliot, who netted the Rangers’ first goal five minutes into the game, earned his second point with a centering pass to Brassard. The former Columbus Blue Jacket hoisted a quick shot over Marc-Andre Fleury‘s shoulder from close range that rattled into the roof of the net.
Play continued, however, and Pouliot finished a wild scramble by burying the puck. Initially it was thought Pouliot won the game, but replays confirmed that Brassard had actually done so a few seconds earlier.
The weird finish obscured that the Penguins came inches from winning the game in the final 20 seconds of regulation. Stempniak took a pass from Chris Kunitz off the rush, dragged the puck into the middle and snapped a shot from 20 feet that appeared to deflect off Kunitz and just wide of the left post.
Joe Vitale also barely missed a go-ahead goal earlier in third, hitting the post with a right-circle wrister that beat Lundqvist cleanly. Olli Maatta had drawn iron with a shot in the opening minutes of the second with the Pens down 2-0, but Stempniak completed a terrific three-way passing play at 7:15 to break the shutout.
Stempniak’s backhand was a beauty from the slot, with Beau Bennett and Marcel Goc earning deserved assists on the play, which developed through the neutral zone and over the blue line quickly. The same formula was in place for Neal’s tying goal, as he took a drop pass from Jussi Jokinen and rifled a patented drive off Lundqvist’s shoulder and barely over the goal line at 13:28.
Evgeni Malkin got the secondary assist on Neal’s tally, but he and Sidney Crosby were relatively quiet again, much like they were in the early stages of the first-round series against Columbus. Crosby especially looked off, losing puck battles and appearing slower than normal; he continues to maintain he’s healthy despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
The Penguins’ team game was infirm in the first period, as they were outshot 13-8 and couldn’t generate much on the offensive end. After Pouliot’s icebreaker that deflected off a backpedaling Matt Niskanen, Brad Richards coolly deposited a backhand deke behind Fleury from the low slot. Richards was left all alone in front of the net to receive Carl Hagelin‘s pass from the right corner.
Game 2 is set for 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Consol Energy Center.